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15th Rink Collapse Victim Found

Somber rescuers pulled three more dead children from the ruins of a skating rink in southeastern Germany and searched the treacherous rubble for one last missing woman, two days after the roof collapsed on people enjoying their holiday break.

The death toll reached 14, with a 40-year-old woman still believed buried. Pope Benedict XVI, who grew up nearby, sent a message of sympathy to the grieving town.

Hope for another miracle, like the rescue of a 5-year-old girl with only minor injuries the day of the accident, had dwindled by the time teams reached the three bodies crushed beneath the twisted skeleton of steel and wooden beams that had been Bad Reichenhall's ice rink until Monday afternoon.

Some 50 people, many of them children still on Christmas vacation from school, were inside at the time. Eighteen people were injured badly enough to be hospitalized.

One of the survivors, teenager Elfriede Datz, said on N24 television from her hospital bed that "all I know is there was a very loud bang, and more I don't know. I can't remember."

Rescue workers recovered three bodies Wednesday, the last a girl, 12 to 16 years old. "We have to give the sad news that we have found another victim," said Georg Grabner, the chief administrator of the surrounding district of Berchtesgaden. "Only one more person lies buried under the rubble."

The bodies of two boys were recovered earlier in the day. Rescuers worked in stages, clearing larger pieces of wreckage with heavy equipment, then sending in teams with dogs trained to detect buried victims. Then more workers entered the shaky ruin, digging with shovels and hands and removing debris with wheelbarrows.

The work had to be halted from Tuesday night until early Wednesday morning when part of the fallen roof began to shift ominously, leading authorities to bring in new equipment to lift the huge crossbeams out. They also reinforced an underground garage to shore up the site from beneath.

Prosecutors said an investigation into possible negligence was underway, amid angry questions from residents about how heavy but predictable snowfall could apparently cause a public building to collapse. Workers marked large sections of wreckage with numbers and letters in red paint as they removed them, in order to assist the effort to reconstruct what had happened. Prosecutors said they were interviewing witnesses and seeking documents in what promised to be a months-long probe.

Questions were raised because city officials had ordered the rink closed at the end of public skating on Monday. They said the snow weight was measured and found to be well within the safety limit, and the closing was a precaution because snow was continuing to fall.

Residents also said there had been discussions about renovating the building, but city officials said the only discussions were on upgrading the pool and heating equipment at the recreation complex. The political parties that make up the city council issued a statement defending the city's conduct.

"Safety-related defects were not evident" during officials' discussions on the building, the statement said. "If the town council had had any indication of safety defects it would not have been considering repairs but rather the immediate closure of the facility."

Hubert Widmann, a structural engineer with the State Business Institute in Munich, said: "I think it's not right to put it all on the snow." He said the snow load could not have exceeded the maximum according to measurements from his institute's office in the area.

Pope Benedict XVI, a Bavaria native who grew up in the town of Traunstein about 20 miles away, sent his condolences to Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, the archbishop of the Bavarian capital, Munich, a post once held by Benedict when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

"Pope Benedict XVI is remembering in his prayers the people killed in this tragic accident, especially the children, and he is asking the Lord for a speedy help and rescue of those still trapped," a telegram of condolences said.